Breathes there a writer with prose so perfect that she has not been told at least once to “show; don’t tell”? One of the best ways to follow this cardinal rule is to use strong verbs. Weak verbs are generic. They can be used in a wide range of situations. Strong verbs are precise.
Contrary to popular thought, not all action verbs are strong verbs. In the sentence “Ali walked down the road,” “walked” is an action verb. It is also a generic verb. It tells us that Ali is using her feet to advance across a surface and nothing else.
Skilled writers use strong verbs to reveal character and situation. If we change “walked” to a more precise verb, we show our readers Ali’s movements. “Strolled,” “pranced,” and “trudged” are just a few of the choices a writer might use to make Ali’s movement more vivid for the reader. Look at this passage from Judith Ivory’s Black Silk to see how a consummate artist shows a girl moving through a crowd.
The girl jostled her way through gripping hands and recriminations. She elbowed one man and grabbed another by the collar. She wanted to be in their midst. She was scanning the men’s encroaching, remonstrating faces, looking them over as thoroughly as they were trying to turn her about. After a minute of this tussle—the men would not organize themselves for her inspection—she clambered up over the edge of the billiard table, standing on it to look down on them all.
Strong verbs also help writers sidestep the adverb trap. Tessa Dare rightly observed in the “to be” discussion that adverbs used well can make prose more vibrant, but choosing a strong verb allows us to avoid graceless, adverb-heavy prose.
Let’s consider “Ali walked down the road” again. Suppose I have written this sentence as the first in a new chapter. I reread it, and I know that I need more. I recast the sentence: “Ali walked slowly down the road, as if burdened with the weight of the world.” By substituting a strong verb, I can cut a fifteen-word sentence to five words and eliminate a cliché in the process: “Ali trudged down the road.”
I confess that I am an overwriter, so I spend much of my revision time pruning my prose. Experience has taught me that strong verbs foster concise writing. Have/has/had phrases often signal wordiness that can be eliminated with a verb change. For example, if I rewrite “Lucia had had yet another argument with her mother” as “Lucia argued with her mother again,” I have cut the awkward repetition “had had” and exchanged a weak verb for a powerful one. In the original sentence, a strong verb (“argue”) is buried in a nominalization (a noun created from a verb or some other part of speech).
Consider this sentence: “Sari’s words caused Anthony great confusion.” The sentence is grammatically correct. Moreover, its meaning is clear. But how much more vivid and exact is the revised sentence “Sari’s words confused Anthony”? Or even better, “Sari’s words baffled Anthony.”
Some choices are stylistic, and they are intimately connected to the writer’s voice. But whether the style is simple and unadorned, lush and lyrical, or somewhere in between, the writer’s aim is vigorous prose. Cutting the “lard,” to borrow Richard Lanham’s term, and choosing verbs with muscle will move the writer closer to her goal.
About the author
Janga started reading her mother’s romance novels the summer she turned ten and has continued to be an avid reader of romance. Even a Ph. D. in English and years in academia were not enough to diminish her love of the genre. The enthusiasm of aspiring romance writers on the Eloisa James bulletin board refired her dream of writing a romance novel. She is in the process of revising her first mss, The Long Way Home, a contemporary with a Southern accent. She blogs at Romance Vagabonds and Just Janga.
Photo credits—Girl walking/prancing: Sanja Gjenero; Boy flexing: Jordan McCollum